Environmental and Social Sustainability (ESS)

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters on September 24, 2014 in New York City. The annual event brings political leaders from around the globe together to report on issues meet and look for solutions. This year's General Assembly has highlighted the problem of global warming and how countries need to strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Environmental and Social Sustainability (ESS) is the adaption and integration of precautionary environmental and social principles and considerations into decision making processes. As part of the United Nations’ commitment to support nationally-owned sustainable development results, UN entities across the system are committed to internalizing the principles they stand for – leading by example and maintaining credibility as a partner in sustainable development. A key element of this is enhancing the environmental and social sustainability of the UN’s activities.

The Framework for Advancing Environmental and Social Sustainability in the UN system (2012) provides a basic architecture for integrating environmental and social sustainability measures into policies, programmes, and operations of the UN, and provides recommendations about measures to be taken at the individual agency level as well as across the UN-system.

The Guide for Advancing the Environmental and Social Sustainability Framework in the UN System (2014) is based on the agencies’ current practices for incorporating, implementing and reporting on sustainability measures, and aims to provide an understanding of the minimum requirements and essential actions needed to move towards sustainability in each institution.

In 2015, the EMG carried out a pilot project to test the utility of the ESS Framework and the Interim Guide in seven volunteer United Nations (UN) entities. The pilot was initiated with a view to share lessons learned, improve the understanding of the practical implications of implementing the Sustainability Framework, and to improve the Framework and the Guide based on the pilot agencies’ experiences in applying them in practice. A Synthesis Report with the results of the pilot project can be found  here.

Building on the conclusions of the pilot project, EMG Members have worked towards a common approach to environmental and social standards for programmes/projects.  The UN system needs to ensure not only that its social and environmental standards are based on relevant international agreements and conventions, but also that it avoids multiple interpretations of what this means in the context of programming. A comparative analysis of seven agencies’ programme/project level safeguard policies, procedures and accountability mechanisms was carried out in 2017 to help identify a basis for the common approach. 

Building on the comparative analysis, key benchmark standards and continuous consultations among EMG Members, the Model Approach to Environmental and Social Standards for UN Programming was developed.  The Model Approach is intended to serve as a reference and benchmark for UN entities when they adopt or revise their own environmental and social standards and safeguards. It outlines a set of key requirements and processes that are typically addressed by UN entity-level safeguard policies, building on lessons learned and the wide range of normative and operational expertise within the UN system. The Model Approach provides a first step in moving towards a common approach, strengthening policy alignment and shared learning.